December 17th is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. At Shift, we know that many people may not feel able to report situations of violence, assault, and harassment, and to seek support from law enforcement. Our staff receive many questions from sex workers related to their rights, sex work laws, engaging with law enforcement, and the details around reporting an event that occurred on the job. Shift has a harm reduction and rights based approach to sex work. This means that the safety and human rights of sex workers are our focus. In order to support sex workers in finding answers to some of the questions around safety and reporting violent incidents, we collected 15 questions from the sex work community and had them answered by Detective Paul Rubner of the Counter Exploitation Unit (formerly Vice Unit) with the Calgary Police Service. We are sharing this Q & A in hopes that it answers some questions other people may have, and encourages the reporting of violence that is perpetrated on our community. Thank you to everyone that submitted questions, and to Detective Rubner for supporting this Q & A. His answers are verbatim, in italics, and may reflect a different perspective than that of Shift and HIV Community Link.
If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to get in contact with Shift staff at 403-237-8171, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or to contact the Counter Exploitation Unit directly at 403-428-8585 or email@example.com.
Questions and Answers with the Counter-Exploitation Unit
A concern for a sex workers about approaching law enforcement in the case of sexual violence is that they are opening the door to a “he said/she said” situation that results in no consequences for the abuser, while the sex worker may be revealing their personal identity through the process of filing a report. Can the victim’s identity remain private? (submitted via email)
If criminal charges are laid, the accused person is legally entitled to know the identity of whoever it is that is accusing them. Beyond that, no personal information, such as address, contact information, or similar personal information will be disclosed. In cases of any sexual assault, much like domestic violence, it is generally a matter of ‘he said/she said’; by the very nature of these offences the presence of independent witnesses is very rare. That doesn’t mean that a criminal offence hasn’t been committed and shouldn’t be investigated. Any victim needs to know that openness and honesty are imperative to the investigation, and should be a two-way street between investigator and victim, regardless of their occupation, and the investigator has a responsibility to ensure, to the extent possible given the requirements of the Criminal Code, that the victim’s privacy remains intact.
What types of training or exposure do police officers receive in regards to working with transgender women who are sex workers? There appears to be a lot of stigma associated with how LGBTQ sex workers are treated. (submitted by a client)
All police officers receive training on how to deal with members of the public in a fair and impartial manner; there is no specific training for dealing with members of the LGBTQ community, or any other individual community. When members come to specialty units, such as the Counter Exploitation Unit, specialized training and education does become available.
Can a police officer apprehend a sex worker’s child if the child isn’t around when she is working? (i.e. child is at daycare for the day)? (submitted via Facebook)
Unless there are child safety concerns arising from whatever employment the parent is involved in, there is no legal basis to apprehend the child. If the child is not with the parent while they are legally working, it’s unlikely this would happen.
Why do you participate in Operation Northern Spotlight if it decreases trust between police officers and sex workers? (submitted via Twitter)
From a holistic point of view, we see no reason for trust to decrease between police officers and sex trade workers. During Operation Northern Spotlight any sex trade worker encountered is treated with respect and without judgement. They are told that their participation is entirely voluntary and they are able to leave immediately if they wish. The goal during Operation Northern Spotlight is primarily to identify those that may not be working voluntarily, or those that are under the age of 18. Both groups have been located in Calgary in the past. All workers are offered the chance to exit the lifestyle if they choose as well, an option that some did not know existed. While it’s unfortunate that some workers feel that they’ve been deprived of some earnings, we try to mitigate some of that by offering to help with transportation costs.
How are concerns from a sex worker about revealing their identity to Law Enforcement addressed? (submitted via email)
This is entirely dependent on the circumstance that the worker finds themselves in. During Operation Northern Spotlight for example, revealing ones identity is entirely voluntary. If, however, the worker is involved with law enforcement in another capacity, either as a victim or a witness, then identity is required in the event that the matter finds itself before the Courts in the future. All efforts to keep personal information confidential are made. There is a legal requirement that accused persons are entitled to know who their accuser is, but there is no requirement to reveal other information, such as addresses or phone numbers. The police obviously would require that information in order to maintain contact throughout the court process.
What information about themselves and their business activities would a sex worker be required to disclose to law enforcement if they require assistance? (submitted via email)
Unless the business activities are related to the matter at hand, no details should be required. Otherwise only contact information and other demographic information is required as part of the reporting process. That said, barring any circumstance to the contrary, the worker is working legally and has nothing to fear from disclosing.
Is there a subsequent investigation into a sex worker’s business activities if they contact law enforcement to resolve a dispute with a client concerning violence, threats, stalking, blackmail, or someone refusing to leave their location? (submitted via email)
Inquiries into the workers business activity may be required in an effort to identify the client in such a scenario, but only for that purpose. Remember, absent circumstances to the contrary, sex work is legal. It’s also important to remember that not all disputes between worker and client are criminal matters, and may need to be resolved through civil means.
What can be done about reports of a client sending threats from a text app? For sex workers this issue is very concerning as the anonymity allows the harasser to make threats and contact the sex worker under a different method to set up a date and do harm in person. (submitted via email)
Texting apps are a significant issue for law enforcement as well. As with any internet-based platform, the anonymity provided by these apps are the biggest hurdle to overcome. In any criminal investigation, the primary focus is on identifying the offender, and these apps make that next to impossible. Some sex trade workers use these apps for that very reason as well, as it provides a certain level of protection for them also. We agree that these apps make an inherently dangerous line of work even more risky on occasion, but we don’t yet have the technology to get past the cyber-security provided by these apps.
What action can be taken in a situation involving blackmail? For example, a person such as a client/landlord/hotel manager threatens to reveal a sex worker’s personal identity to family and friends unless free or discounted services are provided? (submitted via email)
Extortion is a criminal offence, and something that the police take very seriously. In a situation with a client, identifying the person responsible is usually the biggest challenge, due to the anonymity the internet offers, but in the case of a landlord/hotel manager, that is generally not an issue. Each case would have to be evaluated on its own merits, depending on the circumstance and the nature of the threats being made.
In the case of stalking and harassment, what information does a sex worker need to provide law enforcement with that would be considered sufficient evidence for assistance to be obtained? (submitted via email)
In any criminal investigation, as much information as possible should be provided. It’s hard to say generically what is needed. Ultimately the decision to charge is up to the Crown Prosecutor’s office, so the more information/evidence/corroboration that is provided, the easier it may be to meet the threshold that is required by the Courts.
If a sex worker is able to provide texts or emails from the stalker requesting sexual services in exchange for payment, has the stalker committed a criminal offence? Can this be used a measure to dissuade the stalker from contacting and harassing the sex worker? (submitted via email)
Generally speaking, probably not. In this situation it appears as though the client is entering, or attempting to enter, a negotiation, and the worker is free to either accept or discard the offer. If the client continues in their attempts after being rejected, other portions of the Criminal Code may become available.
How is a stalker/harasser approached by law enforcement and what information about a sex worker ‘s personal/legal identity will be disclosed to the stalker? (submitted via email)
As mentioned earlier, if criminal charges are laid, the accused person is legally entitled to know the identity of whoever it is that is accusing them. Beyond that, no personal information, such as address, contact information or similar personal information will be disclosed.
Do police support the repeal of PCEPA (Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act) seeing as it’s driven sex workers further underground and deteriorated any new openness we had with cops post-Bedford decision? (submitted via Twitter)
The Calgary Police Service neither supports nor denounces that particular piece of legislation. We are obligated to operate within the legal framework Parliament provides, and to apply the legislation equally and fairly. It is the opinion of the Counter Exploitation Unit members that the legislation does not need to have a negative effect on any openness, and would encourage workers to reach out to us if they have any questions or concerns.
How is a case of sexual assault handled considering that some sexual contact was consensual while certain activities were forced by the client? For example, a sex worker consents to vaginal intercourse but is sexually assault anally, or the client begins to inflict pain during an activity the sex worker initially consented to and refuses to stop when asked. (submitted via email)
In any sexual assault, the first element that investigators need to determine is the question of consent, regardless of the occupation of the victim. From a legal perspective, consent must be in place through the entirety of the sexual encounter, and can be withdrawn at any time. In the examples above, in very broad strokes, both would appear to be instances of a criminal sexual assault. Of course each situation has to be assessed on an individual basis.
What is the best way for a sex worker to report an incident? (submitted by email)
All incidents can be reported by calling 403-266-1234. Clearly, in an emergency situation, please call 9-1-1. If you want to contact the Counter Exploitation Unit directly, you could email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, (direct to our phones) or you can call 403-428-8585 (voicemail only, checked daily, and up to you whether you want to leave your contact information). We will call you back.